For Rob Rubba, duck is the reason he’s running a restaurant today.
The chef of Shaw’s newest spot, Hazel, was living with his chef uncle in Connecticut about 15 years ago. “He had a crazy cookbook collection. I pulled down Charlie Trotter’s Meat [and Game], I saw a duck dish in there, I said, ‘I’m going to learn how to cook duck,’” Rubba says. He ordered a frozen duck from a butcher shop and laid it out on a pizza box at home. “‘What the fuck are you doing?’” Rubba remembers his uncle saying. The next day his uncle taught him how to break down a duck, confit the legs, roast the breast, and make stock out of the bones.
The experience is what inspired him to become a chef. “I grew up in like a normal home in New Jersey where you just go to the grocery store and you get something wrapped in plastic,” says Rubba, who was previously chef at now-closed Tallula.
Duck is also one of the main attractions at Hazel, a Neighborhood Restaurant Group eatery. In fact, a whole duck platter will be one of the restaurant’s staples in perpetuity—”unless they go extinct,” Rubba says. The $50-per-person feast for at least two comes with Peking-style breast meat, crispy wings, confit fried rice, sausage, mixed greens with duck-fat sherry dressing, and pickles. It’s served on a custom-made lazy Susan.
On his days off or over holidays when he was a chef in New York, Rubba would often go to Peking duck houses and other Chinese spots with fellow restaurant industry friends. That social, shareable style of dining has been another big inspiration for him.
Each of the ducks comes with a numbered tag that will arrive with the meal, so you’ll know that you’re, say, the 326th person to order the dish. The chef likes cataloguing things and thinks it will be fun to note 10 years from now how many ducks he’s sold. “It creates a history to the restaurant,” he says.
The rest of the dishes are a mashup of global influences. Rubba says the word “fusion” has such a taboo that he would never use it to describe the menu, “but in all of our minds, we know it is.”
“Gnocchi bokki” is a hybrid of gnocchi with meat ragu and tteokbokki, a Korean rice cake dish with a sweet red chili sauce. The dish is topped with a pork-kimchi ragu, sesame seeds, and smoked pecorino. Rubba says he came up with it when he tried to make gnocchi for his wife during a big snowstorm a few years ago; he realized he was out of tomato sauce, but found kimchi and gochujang (Korean red chili paste) and used those ingredients instead.
Another dish combines steak tartare with tater tots and caramelized onion dip. Rubba explains he didn’t want to have steak or a burger on the menu, but he thinks beef and potatoes are “awesome” together. “The idea is you eat it more like bibimbap where you mix everything together,” he says. Ask for the “fire panda” sauce, similar to gochujang and served in honey bear bottles, to go with it.
While every dish has its own backstory, perhaps the most personal is the zucchini bread made with a recipe from Rubba’s grandma Hazel, the restaurant’s namesake. Rather than measuring the ingredients in grams as most professional kitchens do, the Hazel team breaks out the measuring cups and tablespoons so that nothing about the recipe is lost in translation. A previous iteration was on the menu at Tallula, but here, it’s served with foie gras mousse, chamomile gelee, and bee pollen.
If you can’t decide and want to leave your meal in the hands of the chef, Hazel also offers a seven-dish tasting menu for $46 per person. The menu will include some dishes available a la carte plus a few specials that use ingredients that are in short supply or only briefly in season. Rubba will adjust the menu for dietary restrictions and allow guests to choose to end their meal with a sweet or savory dish.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group Beer Director Greg Engert and Wine Director Brent Kroll collaborated on a drink menu that doesn’t completely separate beer and wine. Rather, both are combined under headers like “fruit and spice,” “tart and funky,” and “malt and earth.” And just as the food takes inspiration from all over the globe, so do the drinks—from a Georgian orange wine to Estonian black IPAs.
Hazel, 808 V St. NW, hazelrestaurant.com